The Flawed Genius of William Playfair (Online)

Date: Monday 08 July 2024, 3.00PM
Location: Online
Section Group Meeting

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Abstract: A product of the Scottish Enlightenment, William Playfair (1759–1823) worked variously as a statistician, economist, engineer, banker, scam artist, and political propagandist, among other activities. It has also been claimed that he was a spy who devised a plan in the 1790s for the British government to forge French paper money, called assignats, to destroy the French financial system. His lasting contributions are in statistics, where he is known as the father of data visualization, and in economics, where he is known for his contributions to the first posthumous edition of Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations. In this talk, I will focus on Playfair’s graphs (the good, the bad, and the ugly), which were motivated by political and economic issues of his day. Playfair invented time series line graphs, area graphs, and the now ubiquitous bar chart and pie chart. He also introduced innovative ways to display multivariate data. Many of the graphical elements that Playfair used are standard elements in statistical graphics today. To finish the talk, I will describe my experience with trying to debunk the conspiracy theory that Playfair was a spy.
David Bellhouse (Western University, Canada)
Contact Chaitra H. Nagaraja, Meetings Secretary for the RSS History of Statistics Section
Members - free to attend 

Non-members £10